Walk the Line: Giving Kids Playing Time VS Results

6-15-22 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

Getting the kids up to the major league level is arguably the most exciting and painful part of any rebuild, both at the same time. A rebuilding team needs to see the kids play, but playing a ton of kids is also rarely going to lead to good things for the overall club.

Individuals will of course have great games, terrible games, innings where everything they’ve done well falls apart, stretches where playing baseball seems like a foreign concept to them and ultimately, losing.

How do teams take on this process? And I mean all teams that do this, not just the teams that don’t spend, I mean every team that goes through the process of remaking their roster.

First, most of them lose. Prospects are largely about two things, their perceived ceiling, and their perceived floor. One thing most people don’t seem to grasp, and I mean this just as much for people covering baseball as those who just watch it, is that ceiling and more specifically, when teams expect it to be reached. It’s different for every prospect of course, just like every function in the game, but by in large, nobody is getting the promotion to MLB ready to be the best version of themselves.

High Payroll Rebuild

Now, if you’re a team that spends and simply wanted to wipe the slate clean and restock, this is easier. Instead of trading everyone, gathering up prospects and waiting for a group of them to come up to MLB before putting seasoned players around them, they like to trade everyone, pick up prospects, maybe have a really high pick for a season and then load back up via free agency or trades of some of the prospects they just got. Some young guys will be injected, but you never really have to deal with the ceiling thing too much because in isolation you can slow walk one or two guys. In other words, you let them slowly acclimate to the league and on top of that, you’ve likely put enough veterans in place to negate the need to force kids into action.

There aren’t many that can really pull off this method and it takes a perfect storm to be executed. You have to have a team loaded with vets, underperforming to the degree you know it just isn’t happening, relatively reasonable contracts and enough track record to actually return something worth caring about.

If anything really forces this, it tends to be aging out.

The Cubs could do this next season if they chose to, but it doesn’t smell like that’s what they’re going to do. If they did plan on that, they’d extend Wilson Contreras even at his age because there simply aren’t a lot of high quality catchers on the market. Even though I don’t see them going full on into that direction, they’ll add a bit here and there.

Mid Payroll Rebuild

This is the dream some Pirates fans have, but it’s probably higher than they’ve really ever achieved. This is a team like Houston. I know, you’re going to look at their payroll and tell me they belong in the first category, but hear me out.

These teams stink out loud for a stretch. They sell off everything and the biggest problem typically is that they didn’t have enough talent to really net the kind of return needed to jump start the system enough. That means the draft becomes the catalyst. The draft takes time, and your choices at this point are limited, you either add free agents knowing that almost all of them aren’t going to be there to help you when the kids you’re looking to arrive, or you don’t, and keep that draft slot toward the top for a while.

As you discover surprise kids, ok, lock ’em up on occasion, but the plan continues to be deal with the losing, remake the system and go.

This method then has a fork in the road. When you have a nice crop right on the doorstep, you can either go add heavy in the free agent market to give all these kids measuring sticks or bring them up in a flood, suffer with the growing pains. Either way it’s typically the last year of real pain. Some of the kids step up and become regulars, and the next year you can target deficiencies.

Obviously there are variations here, but this is the most typical.

Houston is a large market, could obviously have taken approach one, but it’s hard to argue with the foundational work they did to create a system that continues to provide. To their credit, they didn’t panic when they lost parts and pieces of the team that got it done.

Yes I remember the cheating, but even if they hadn’t won the World Series, this method is accurate.

Low Payroll Rebuild

Ahh, your Buccos fit in well here, even if they shouldn’t. I’m of the belief that this club could and should live around 100-120 million in perpetuity, but I’m not going to sit here and rail on that knowing that’s not likely with this owner.

The Royals, Orioles, and yes Rays all do this stuff too to a degree and I’ll try to expound on that a bit more as we go.

First, of course as you all have watched, they trade everything with any value that isn’t under team control long enough to be here for the rebuilt system to provide.

Some teams entering something like this might do what Atlanta did and make sure they have an anchor to help guide the kids. Atlanta for instance held onto Freddie Freeman as they waded through the process waiting for their picks and international signings to have impact.

I digress though, because much like the Cubs, Atlanta chose that path, it wasn’t dictated by their market size.

At some point, this typically leads to what you’re watching right now, a mass youth movement. Flooding MLB with kids and hoping someone sticks. In the Pirates case, most of this wave isn’t the exciting or expected to be exciting prospects. Obviously Roansy and Cruz are, but by in large, you’re hoping if you call up 12-15, you maybe find 2 or 3 who make a case for being a starter, and 2 or 3 who make a case for bench roles. Add them into whomever you’ve kept around (Hayes, Reynolds, Bednar) and hope you start to see something form.

Now if none of them stick, you’ve likely got some problems if you don’t have the money to make up for it quickly. If some of them do, you’re probably ready to start targeted addition.

That’s ideal of course, and in this market with this owner that’s no guarantee.

For instance, let’s play out a scenario. At the end of 2022 you have the following. An outfield with Reynolds and 1 or 2 rookies you at least think could start the 2023 season on the roster. An infield with Hayes and guys you feel you could start 2023 with everywhere else. That could be Cruz, Marcano and Chavis, which honestly isn’t the long term vision I’m quite sure, but that leaves room for the next wave to push with Peguero, Gonzales, Bae and others. You’d also have to look at Catcher and realize nothing is there. They’ll have no choice but to sign one because Davis alone isn’t enough to consider a spot filled for 2023. The pitching staff, well, the bullpen is always going to a degree be built as you go and the rotation, you hope to have 3 you believe in with 3 more you’d like to think could find something minimally.

That’s a lot to ask. Here’s why. Those pesky ceilings again. See Cruz could come up this week and quite literally jump right in as the team’s very best offensive threat and he still wouldn’t be anywhere near the player this franchise thinks he can be. That doesn’t come quick for most kids. Even Bryan Reynolds who had a killer 2019 rookie season took a big jump in 2021, and after this year I wouldn’t be shocked to see him take another modest step forward. Point is, even at this stage we haven’t seen the ceiling on Reynolds.

So when a kid like Roansy comes up here and looks great from the jump, realize he isn’t as fine tuned as he likely will be. He’ll be a better pitcher in 2024 should he remain healthy and nothing silly happens with the yips or something. Doesn’t mean he’s dog crap until that point, just means guys don’t come up often as finished products.

I’m cherry picking good players right? OK, how about you take a guy like Diego Castillo. He made the team out of Spring, has shown some flashes of really having something there. Taken some good at bats, played some good defense and recently the wheels have just fallen off. So what have the Pirates learned? Have they learned he’s a failure? Have they learned he’s an answer? No to both. They’ve learned that the stage doesn’t make him shrink, they’ve also learned that his weaknesses are exploitable and the league taught them that. They’ve learned he’s versatile. They’ve learned that while he’s probably too advanced for much more AAA, he’s also got enough room on his ceiling that more effort could be worthwhile. Small lessons come along too. Like yesterday afternoon they learned if he makes a mistake in the field he has a really hard time letting it go and refocusing.

All of this learning and waiting and training and experimenting leads to losses. Lots of them. They can also lead to some magic moments where all the kids feed off each other and their skills just take over. It’s almost always short lived when it happens, but kids are volatile and if you see one thing this season, this will be it. Some days you’re going to watch them all doing their part and looking like they are forming a team (see LA series), and sometimes you’re going to see them all seemingly stand around waiting for Reynolds and Hayes to get this damn team a win (current road trip).

Essentially this method is simply explained. You can’t afford 20 pounds of gold, but you can afford a 10 acre gold mine. Maybe 20 pounds is in there, maybe it isn’t, but you’ll never know until you dig. If at the end of the day you only get 5 and the mine cost more, you failed. If you wind up getting 25, you’ve won. Reality dictates most of the time you go overbudget digging and over time while only netting 15-20.

That’s why I always remind that this will need augmented, and that’s when Nutting comes in. I wish I had more faith in him to deliver, and historically I suppose we can say to a degree he will, but certainly can’t say enough.

So They Just Accept Losing!

Well, yes.

They accept the probability at least. The theory is kinda simple. I have 10-20 guys I believe could make it to MLB this season. I want to see those 10-20. If I go buy 5 or 6 guys to make the MLB club more competitive or watchable I might only see 7-12 of those guys.

Essentially you’re saying, pre-season mind you, I value seeing these kids start to make their way more than letting fans ooh and ahh at a guy who I’m gonna turn around and trade. Real impact free agents, ignoring Bob Nutting’s willingness altogether, tend to not sign one year deals, so you’d need to be prepared to grab a guy for 3-4 years. Pitching makes sense here because there is hardly an area you need to be confident in more. I’ll tell you right now, Brubaker, Keller, Quintana, and Thompson have all pitched well enough that if you had another like say Rodon, Roansy is probably waiting for an injury or, they’ve moved on from Keller and you don’t see him add this 2-seamer here and evolve a bit.

That’s the long and short of it. A cheap owner makes this method sellable for a GM, but it’s not the reason they don’t add, that comes from wanting to see kids.

Too many kids to assume they’re going to gel and look like big progress has been made.

How would you do it galaxy brain?

Well, in this market, a hybrid.

I like most of the work the system has undergone and I like the crop of youngsters we’re dealing with this year, but I’d have secured my positional depth a bit more.

None of this is new by the way, it’ll be the same stuff I called for pre-season.

  • I’d have gotten another qualified backup catcher knowing Roberto Perez was injury prone and knowing I have no realistic prospect depth. Especially given how important the team feels that position is to the pitching development
  • A bonafide corner outfielder which I know sounds silly given all the youngsters being implemented, but you need 4 in that position group, one of them should be a real measuring stick. Gamel is a good player, but he’s not going to hold back a kid you want to see. Even an Adam Duvall type would have provided resistance. Having wide open landing strips doesn’t create the kind of pressure to improve you need. I shouldn’t have minor league players writing me asking how in the hell they aren’t better than whomever is here, that much should be clear.
  • 2 real, tested veteran starters. Not 1 trying to rebuild his career. Bryse Wilson looked like crap in Spring and came in out of shape, there should have been no circumstance under which he was expected to start out of Spring. Not to mention aside from Roansy, there wasn’t much. Cody Bolton is there, but he hasn’t really pitched in 2 years, it might be foolish to bring him up knowing he can’t give more than maybe 100 innings this year. Burrows is good, but he’s just now reaching AAA and while I can absolutely see him getting a shot this year, it’d really be better if he didn’t.
  • A second baseman. Moved out an all star and nobody was ready. I’d like to give them a pass here, but they put too many eggs in the Cole Tucker might figure it out train and the Castillo looks ready boat. Josh VanMeter doesn’t count as an experienced signing as he’s a prospect that has failed to launch too.
  • First baseman and I’ll expand on this below

Add in all those pieces and who knows, maybe you still end up here with all kids rushing the gates, but they’ll all feel like they ran a race to get here instead of simply waiting for desperation to necessitate the call.

Kids should come here hungry. Ready to contribute to what’s already being done. They should look to their left and right and see an example of how to handle an off day and still be prepared. They should see how to observe a pitcher as the game goes along just in case they’re asked to pinch hit.

They shouldn’t come up here feeling it was expected and that’s why you artificially block them, even if it’s not going to add up to much more winning.

5 million dollars for what amounts to a rookie first baseman with power potential, who also by the way can’t field the position, is not a valuable add. He’s too old to be part of this, and contractually he just never mattered. I can realistically look at 1st base and say, Martin was at least not a guy that needs to be forced into action, so this would be a perfect spot to add a real veteran player. 2 or 3 years for a first baseman. Doesn’t have to be big name, just someone who at least has proven they’re above league average and then Martin has something to aspire to. Right now, you’re just asking him to be better than Michael Chavis or said “rookie” Yoshi. That doesn’t block Martin, it just makes it reasonable that until he does X and Y, this dude we brought in is better. Have to have that in my mind.

My final thing for all this rebuild jazz, I’d have hired a coach who’s done this before. You know you’re going to have a bunch of kids at some point no matter how you attack this thing, so make sure the coach isn’t learning with them. Now, maybe they tried to find someone less green and were told to f off. I mean who wants to take a gig knowing 3 years of losing is in front of them if they think they have other opportunities out there? Regardless, they now have enough here and coming quick to start thinking about making a change. I don’t think they will, if only because of what I just mentioned. You aren’t going to ask a guy to come here and suck for 3 years then when you finally provide tools tell him he’s out and someone else get’s to go ahead and dock the boat.

That said, the emotionless part of me says if you want this to work, you better decide now if you have the right guys pushing buttons and making out lineup cards in place. When you are shooting for a limited time opening you best not waste a year finding out 4 years later this guy has no feel for in game decisions.

Conclusion

There’s nothing unforeseen happening this year. We expected a young team to get younger, we saw they didn’t sign anyone of note so we knew it would be sooner than later, and we knew that all these kids weren’t going to be enough.

I still maintain that by August/September you’ll like the overall look of this squad, at least more than you did in April, but there is still work to do, and unfortunately, some of that work is going to come when this team looks like they have no business on the field with real contenders.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

One thought on “Walk the Line: Giving Kids Playing Time VS Results

  1. You seem to forget that each player is in AAA or AA because the have issues that even the end of bench bums like VanMeter or others have that are slightly better than what the player in the minors has currently wether pitch recognition (for hitters) or control of full repore ( for pitchers) if get those skills to replace end of bench or end of pen guy then etc him come to majors… Agree guys like Wilson yoshi van meter a d cat hinge fla or of month shouldn’t stop guys they are what they are place holders nothing more

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